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Mining Twitter data to track public health trends

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine came down with a cold and comforted herself by documenting every sniffle, spike in temperature and sleepless night via Twitter. At the time it seemed a little excessive to share such details, but it turns out the information could actually prove to be useful in tracking public health trends.

Using specially designed software, computer scientists at Johns Hopkins University scanned 2 billion public tweets posted between May 2009 and October 2010 and analyzed the messages for information about a variety of health issues such as cancer, pain, depression, flu cases and allergies. According to a release:

In about 200,000 of the health-related tweets, the researchers were able to draw on user-provided public information to identify the geographic state from which the message was sent. That allowed them to track some trends by time and place, such as when the allergy and flu seasons peaked in various parts of the country.


In addition to finding a range of health ailments in Twitter posts, the researchers were able to record many of the medications that ill tweeters consumed, thanks to posts such as: “Had to pop a Benadryl…allergies are the worst.”

Other tweets pointed to misuse of medicine. “We found that some people tweeted that they were taking antibiotics for the flu,” [said Johns Hopkins PhD student Michael J. Paul]. “But antibiotics don’t work on the flu, which is a virus, and this practice could contribute to the growing antibiotic resistance problems. So these tweets showed us that some serious medical misperceptions exist out there.”

Although the work represents an interesting use of social media to identify public health trends, researchers were quick to note some study limitations. Among them:  Twitter uses tend to be younger, and they typically don't comment on symptoms more than once.

Previously: Following Google Flu Trends, researchers use queries to track MRSA, Modeling the spread of H1N1 flu and Department of Energy lab develops new software for evaluating and responding to pandemics
Photo by Steve Garfield

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